Provence in southern France is famous for its landscapes and climate. The urban areas – Nice, Cannes, Marseilles, Avignon and Saint Tropez – attract visitors from around the world but in this piece we will look more closely at a small rural area, and for a specific season: the Luberon region at the time before the Lavender harvest.
Bordered on the west by the Rhone River and defined then by the Mediterranean to the south and the Alps to the north-east, Provence is a historical province of France from the Roman times. The region contains a number of unique geographic features including the Camargue marshlands and the Calanques coastline.
Provence is well known as a retreat for artistic souls. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse – all painted notable works here. Life in the small towns in the area provided an epitomy of a rustic ideal with strong light and vibrant colours to enliven canvasses. The tradition continues with many modern painters visiting the area as well as their more modern counterparts, photographers.
Many writers have found solitude or inspiration here, including many French writers and expatriates such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham. The area also has its share of notorious characters including Nostradamus (of the predictions) and The Marquis de Sade.
The distinctive purple hue of lavender blooms has attracted gardeners for centuries but it is the production of the lavender essential oil that leads to the planting of huge swathes of this member of the mint family as an agricultural crop. En-masse the flowers create patterns of colour that enhance the landscape, particularly during the hours of golden light at dawn and dusk.
Lavender essential oil has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. These are useful but it is fragrance that perfumiers seek, and the unproven benefit of improving the quality of sleep that is being explored by aromatherapists. Just think how many bath foams and salts choose this fragrance and colour to promote their wares as relaxing. There just might be something behind that.
Luberon for lavender
The Luberon region stretches for some 50 kilometres east from Avignon where small towns sit atop rugged ridges allowing the flatter lands between to be used for farming. The dry, alkali soil is good for vines and the area produces fine wines under the Côtes du Luberon banner. It is also most suitable for species such as Lavandula which is particularly prone to fungal root rot in damper climes.
Since the lavender in Luberon is usually harvested in the second half of July it is best to plan a visit in very late June or early July in order to catch the best of the blooms.
For many international travelers, flying into Marseilles is going to be the best option. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has good train connections and is a good starting point for those coming from the north. You might then prefer a self-drive holiday staying in a local villa or a tour depending upon your budget, fluency in French and general confidence traveling abroad.
Ian Ford is Operations Manager at Photo Tours Abroad.